From textiles to pottery, cultural histories unfold as the skilled hands of generations move across a series of mediums, resulting in what are widely regarded as some of the finest artisan products in Mexico, if not the world.
This creative history spans centuries of learning, oral tradition and family legacies, with numerous pueblos (towns) in the state of Oaxaca specializing in unique offerings such as pit-fired red clay pottery and cotton textiles produced by hand on backstrap looms. While these traditions remain an integral source of storytelling and income-generating business, many artisan groups are feeling the effects of migration, the importation of cheap, mass-produced products and a fluctuating influx of tourists, which is a crucial industry to the state.
Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in handmade artisan works due to growing cultural awareness based in rapidly developing technology, along with a desire for transparency in supply chains. Savvy consumers are looking for quality over quantity, and maintain a deeply rooted interest in where their purchases come from, along with the stories of the makers who bring these pieces to life, and how their lives are affected by consumer spending.
This August marks my fifth month of living and working in Oaxaca. Driven by a desire for increased meaning and flexibility in my professional life, along with experiences that resonated deeply with me during my first visit to the city last October, my decision to quit my full-time job and move to this vibrant state is one of the best choices that I have ever made.
Despite my initial lack of knowledge around the Spanish language, the people of Oaxaca have welcomed me into their home with grace, inclusivity and kindness. As with any new place, there have been challenges, however the bulk of the time, I find myself meandering past brilliantly hued UNESCO buildings and marveling at my good fortune in being situated in this stunning locale.
Given the advances in my Spanish skills, I am finally able to collect and share stories with the scores of artisans who live in the pueblos around the city (sometimes, I can even be funny). With this, I have been able to make advances in my work as a Oaxaca-based Product Liaison and Quality Control professional who fosters direct communication with specific communities in order to stay informed on their processes, maintain strong personal ties, and help to facilitate expanded connections with a host of international retail clients.
The people of Oaxaca have been good to me, and due to this, along with the fact that I plan to live in this city for some time to come, it’s important to me to implement efforts in order to give back to this community that has welcomed me so warmly. The artisans that I work with are paid fair wages per their specifications for the extensive time and effort applied when creating their products. I have visited, and will continue to visit, their homes and workshops in order to learn more about their creative practice, families and livelihoods. In documenting these interactions, my efforts are focused on assisting to expand their retail networks further into Canada and the United States (and perhaps beyond), and to encourage heightened awareness around the artisan communities and handmade works that are produced in this state on a daily basis.
Oaxaca is truly spectacular. I invite you to visit if you are craving a wee voyage, and am happy to take you for the best tlayudas and offer advice around Spanish classes, quiet places to read and other important considerations. If you have no travel plans in the works over the next while, or if you simply wish to incorporate a bit of Oaxaca into your home or retail space, I welcome you to read through the town and product information below. Many of the handmade pieces can also be custom-designed for specified colors quantities.
I will be visiting Edmonton, Vancouver and Vancouver Island in September with samples and will also be taking orders in advance of this visit. I also have tentative plans to travel to New York City, Montreal and Toronto next spring. Please contact me directly for the product specifications and pricing, along with specific custom requests or any questions that you may have. You can reach me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Barro Rojo (Red Pottery) from San Marcos Tlapazola
The smell of smoke permeates the air as I approach this bustling pueblo that sits at the foot of a mountain in the municipality of Tlacolula de Matamoros. With a population of roughly 1,200, this town specializes in a type of pottery that sees clay transformed into rustic red plates, bowls, pitchers, cups, cooking pots and assorted decorative items. Only the women of San Marcos Tlapazola create these pottery pieces, while the men participate in other types of endeavors, such as agriculture and hired labor.
Today, I am in the home of a local family in order to learn more about this traditional art. Sand is added to the clay that is sourced from the local fields, so that it doesn’t stick during the making process. The vessels are built by hand using dried cornhusks and pieces of oilcloth to help the material take shape. Once the works are complete, they are assembled under a strategically piled mass of burning tree branches, dried cornhusks and remnants of broken pots that all sit in a pit in the ground of the family compound. The firing lasts for roughly an hour, with some of the pieces staying in a bit longer. This results in pottery pieces that resemble a patchwork patina of black and orangey-red.
These products are suitable for cooking, eating and decorative purposes. Being that they are built and fired by hand, every barro rojo piece is one-of-a-kind, with final pieces being featured on the tables of some of the finest dining establishments in Oaxaca, to the local street food vendors who regularly serve up various types of mole, tortillas and other delights that are cooked over an open fire. After checking in with the local government office here in Oaxaca, it was noted that these pieces are safe for oven and stovetop (both gas and electric), but not dishwashers or microwaves. With regular use over time, they also develop a lovely patina.
The women mainly sell from their homes and the enormous Sunday market in Tlacolula, so their sales are sometimes limited. I will be bringing some sample pieces with me, which you are welcome to purchase (some of which are pictured in the opening photo, with the rest included the price sheet which can be requested through me via email). The women are also open to custom orders, though they generally need a minimum of 2 weeks to complete.
Cotton Backstrap Weaving from Santo Tomás Jalieza
I nod hello as a woman with lengthy ribbon-festooned salt and pepper braids closes the door behind her. The two of us are squeezed into a maroon colectivo taxi with four other people as we make our way through the Ocotlán District in the south of the Valles Centrales region of Oaxaca. The driver drops me off on the highway and I move towards the center of town in order to meet with the textile artisans at the market that sits directly across from the local church.
Mezcal, fruit and vegetables are produced in this village of roughly 2,900 people, however it is most famous for the intricate backstrap textile works. This process includes varying widths of cotton strands, which are woven together using an ancient pre-Hispanic method that includes a leather belt that sits on the lower back of the artisan.
As I approach the market, three women are sitting on their knees on woven straw mats, moving strands with their fingers and a wooden slat in order to bring patterns to life. My hands run across multicolored placemats and table runners as I speak to a pair of women about their local collective. Over 40 years ago, the weaving households in the community formed a collective in the interest of maintaining fair pricing and cutting back on competition in the community. This has resulted in a more harmonious social balance for locals, and also makes for a straight forward sourcing process, as everyone maintains the same prices. The collective group elects a new president and secretary every year, and the market is open seven days a week, for roughly nine hours a days.
I purchase three medium-sized bags with zippers and liners that are big enough for bathroom products, sewing supplies or to use as a clutch purse. I use my white and beige bag for just that, and while my phone, keys and other items remain safely together, the purse has encouraged some lovely compliments when out on the town. The table runners come in a range of colors in lengths of either 1.5 meters or 2 meters, though longer custom pieces can be made (as seen in the opening image to this section). The prices depend on the complexity of the design, and most pieces are 100% cotton, which can be washed by hand in cold water and mild laundry detergent.
The weavers offer works in every color imaginable, though these pieces vary on a day-by-day basis and are open to custom requests. Being that they work as a collective, they also welcome large orders, since they can work as a group rather than only as individuals.
Molinillos of Oaxaca
This traditional Mexican whisk is made from hand carved and painted wood, and though they serve a specific function, they are so beautiful that they exist as art pieces themselves.
Oaxacan hot chocolate can be found in vendor stalls and breakfast tables across the state, where handmade chocolate is mixed with water or milk, and is often consumed with bread on the side. Once the liquid is hot, the molinillo is rubbed vigorously between two palms so that the drink is properly blended, and also to include a foamy topping. The samples that I have are roughly the size of my forearm (specifics included in price sheet), and the whisks come with handmade chocolate, fresh from the markets of Oaxaca. I can tell you how to make the hot chocolate, and I can also tell you that it is delicious.
Handwoven Textiles of Mitla
A swirl of dusty air moves past my eyes as I walk into a weaving product storefront in Mitla – a pueblo that plays host to the second most important archeological site in Mexico. While these ancient ruins are of interest, I am on a mission to connect with a family of artisans who produce some of the finest rebozos (pictured above) that I have encountered during my time in the state of Oaxaca.
For those who are not familiar with the history of the rebozo, during the Mexican Revolution, the rebozo gained global notoriety when local ‘Adelitas’ repurposed them to smuggle weapons past strict government checkpoints. For centuries, this magical swath of cloth has been used to carry babies and packages, keep shoulders warm and shield them from the sun, cover heads in mourning and serve as a fashion item. These ubiquitous shawls are typically handwoven from wool, cotton and sometimes silk, for special occasions. When the weaving is complete, they are then finished by hand with a complicated fringe that is known as rapacejos.
This Tuesday afternoon sees me on the cement roof of the family home in order to meet with Emiliano and his son to learn more about the weaving process. Their family business in Mitla has been producing handmade textiles since 1920. While some pueblos in Oaxaca see entire families producing textiles, the men in this pueblo are the only ones who weave. Women often work on stunning embroidered pieces, along with the marketing and sales of the weaving products themselves.
I move off to the side as cotton threads are slowly pulled over a giant spool, which is later attached by hand, strand by strand, to the existing white threads on an enormous standing loom. The workshop is comprehensive, with varying sizes of looms used to create everything from napkins to rebozos and table runners.
The pair then walk me through their weaving process, which sees feet and hands moving in unison, as a delicate bolt of fabric in light green and cream emerges before my eyes. Once the the fabric is complete, the pieces are finished with sophisticated knot work that is also done by hand. The family typically weaves seven days a week, ten hours a day, but this depends on the sales that are coming through the shop, which are higher when they participate in the odd big event in the city of Oaxaca like Guelaguetza and Semana Santa. The tradition has been in the family for generations, as seen in the family photos included above.
I have seen my fair share of rebozos in and around the city, and these are some of the most beautiful works that I have come across, as they serve as both family history and as exclusive art pieces, with no two handmade pieces being exactly the same.
My purchases for the day include three rebozos that combine natural cotton with delicate pink, light grey and black in varying patterns. While I will have a few samples on-hand during my September visit to Canada, it’s best to order any desired pattern and colors in advance so that I can buy directly from the family before heading North. Colors include this natural cotton color paired with coral, turquoise, baby blue, sage green, soft yellow, gold yellow, along with a few other options.
I am able to bring purchases with me to Edmonton, Vancouver and Vancouver Island between September 8 – 28, 2015. Orders will also be taken on an ongoing basis after these dates, though shipping times and costs will depend on quantities and location. Please contact me for full details at:
Words and photos ©Ehren Seeland